Friday, February 29, 2008

Dennis Wilson -- Pacific Ocean Blue

1978 was a great year for music. Punk had finally filtered down to the mainstream, and the resulting New Wave mashup of snarling attitude and pop hooks actually made it fun to listen to the radio again.

Since 1978 is now officially 30 years ago, and since record labels are fond of releasing 30th Anniversary commemorative box sets and expanded special editions and the like, it's a good time to rediscover some great music you may have missed (potty training was such a drag that year for some of you) the first time around. The recent superb reissues of Nick Lowe's Jesus of Cool and Elvis Costello's This Year's Model would be a great place to start.

But it was a pretty good year for the rock 'n roll dinosaurs, too. That fellow above is Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boy Wilson brother you probably don't know much about. Brian wrote and sang most of the great songs, Carl played great Chuck Berry guitar licks and wrote and sang. Dennis? Well, Dennis played the drums. Badly. Although he toured with the band, session drummers usually replaced him in the studio. And since his gruff and ragged voice was closer to Tom Waits than The Four Freshmen, he rarely sang on the Beach Boys albums.

But Dennis, the one Beach Boy who could actually surf, was a complex, gifted, and enormously conflicted human being, and you can hear all that and more on the reissue of his 1978 album Pacific Ocean Blue, which has been paired with a second disc of abortive tracks that were to comprise his followup album Bambu, which was never issued. It's a quintessential California album of the time (Jackson Browne would have killed for a couple of these tunes), and it's the sound of a man whose life is falling apart; full of tender ballads and almost jazzlike hymns, and pervaded by a sense of self-doubt and insecurity. It's the great lost Beach Boys treasure, and it's coming to a record store (do they still have those?) near you on May 13th. In one of the many ironies surrounding the Wilson brothers, the quiet, introspective Dennis actually released the first Wilson solo album. Alas, it was to be his last. In the crowning irony, the surfer drowned in 1983.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Inheriting Millions, No Billions

Has anyone ever responded to one of the heartrending pleas for help that are typically sent via email from some desperate African widow? The scenarios vary somewhat, but they seem to revolve around a hidden fortune, the tragic death of a loved one, and your (yes, your) ability to resolve the financial impasse. For your help you are eligible to receive half of the hidden fortune, which typically amounts to many millions of dollars.

I figure that I've now passed up something on the order of half a billion dollars that could have been mine. That would have almost paid for my daughter's semester in NYC. So I'm kicking myself, and wondering if anyone has actually responded to such a letter. What happened? Did you receive your millions? And why do I seem to receive one or two of these desperate pleas every week? How did I get on that mailing list?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Americans Changing Churches at an Increasing Rate

The New York Times, summarizing a survey done by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, notes that Americans are changing churches/religions at an increasing rate. I believe it, but I'll also throw something out here, and see if it resonates with anybody.

I don't identify myself with a particular theological tradition other than "orthodox Christianity." And I wonder if there are others out there like me, and whether that fact contributes to the increased fluidity noted in the Pew survey. The fact that someone is Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, emerging church, whatever, is almost immaterial to me. I say "almost" because, yes, I think doctrine matters very much in terms of basic Christian beliefs. But once those basic beliefs (nicely encompassed in The Apostle's Creed) are confirmed, then the things I'm looking for in a good church can be met in a variety of denominational settings. And I'll go to the "best" church that meets those doctrinal requirements (and I'll define "best" in a minute).

I am a theological mongrel (some would say "bastard," and they'd probably be right, too). I grew up in the Catholic Church, pursued the god of hedonism for a while (and then a little while longer as a Christian, and then longer again; that's still the besetting temptation in my life), came back to the faith through the Jesus Movement, was a Jesus Freak in a non-denominational Christian community for eight years, have been membered in Brethren (Anabaptist/Arminian) and Presbyterian (Calvinist) churches, and currently find myself in a Vineyard church, which combines elements of the Jesus Freak, Calvinist, and Anabaptist traditions with a liturgical and contemplative focus that is heavily indebted to the Catholic and Anglican traditions. So what does that make me? I don't know. A Christian, as best I can figure.

I will be membered wherever people desire to pursue a relationship with God, and understand in some fairly non-negotiable ways that dying to self and living for Christ is the hardest and most rewarding life imaginable, and that it takes a community where people are known and loved, warts and all, to make that happen. That's what constitutes the "best" church, in my opinion. Realizing that any church will fall somewhat short of the mark (if nothing else because I am in it), I have always looked for the local church that comes closest to understanding and embodying those ideals. When I was a young adult that was a community in the middle of the ghetto in Columbus, Ohio. When I lived in a small Ohio town it was the local PCUSA church. Now it's a Vineyard church, although, quite honestly, I'm sure there are Vineyard churches out there that would drive me crazy, and that I could never be a part of. I'm simply not wedded to a particular theological tradition, and changing traditions is simply the price that has to be paid when one moves, and when one is looking for the "best" local incarnation of what it means to be the body of Christ at a particular time in a particular place.

From what I can tell, there are a lot of similarly-minded Christians out there. I'm in a church full of them; people who recognize the value of a lot of different theological traditions, and how those traditions can address the shortcomings of any one theological viewpoint. I am, first and foremost, a Christian. The doctrinal/historical distinctives are not unimportant, but they take a back seat (pew? folding Samsonite chair?) to hanging out with a bunch of folks who understand, deep down, their need for Christ, their own culpability in the mess they have made of their lives, and their utter dependence on Jesus to sort it out. First and foremost I look for a messy church. If all things are done decently and in order, then I simply figure that people are wearing their nice, proper Christian masks, and I have better things to do with my life than play that game again. And I wonder how much those kinds of thoughts factor in to the increasing fluidity of church membership that is noted in that Pew survey. Anybody have any thoughts?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Larry Norman

In April of 1974 I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and asked Jesus Christ to be my Personal Lord and Savior. About a week later several new and still somewhat dubious friends who called themselves “brothers” and “sisters” started badgering me to stop listening to Pink Floyd. “Listen to Larry Norman,” they told me.

So I took them up on the advice. Athens, Ohio, where I was living at the time, had a Christian bookstore on Court Street that was full of the usual kitsch; coffee mugs with Bible verses, puppy and kitty posters, a couple shelves of books, and, at the back, one sparsely populated shelf of “Christian” albums. I flipped through them. Most of them appeared to be made by Christian families at an Appalachian wedding; ma, pa, and the kids all wearing goofy grins and ill-fitting suits. At the very back of the stack was Larry Norman, who looked like a hippie. I bought his album, which was called Only Visiting This Planet.

Decades later, at the height of a multi-billion dollar industry, Contemporary Christian Magazine, which covered this sort of stuff, named Only Visiting This Planet as “the best Contemporary Christian album of all time.” All I knew in 1974 was that it had to be better than the grinning Blackburn Family. So I took it back to my dorm room and played it. I liked it. And I played it a couple months ago as well, pulled out that old, scratchy vinyl copy and cleaned it up, and listened thirty-four years down the line. I winced a few times, but I still liked it.

Larry, who died yesterday, was a friend I never knew, and a frustratingly untrustworthy witness to the faith. He was talented, insecure, prone to fanciful tales that bore little or no relationship to the truth, possibly mad as a hatter, and utterly, fearlessly in love with Jesus. The truth is that he made about three good albums over the course of thirty five years and dozens of releases. He repackaged his thirty great songs over and over again, made ridiculous claims about his role in the music industry (the founder of rap was my favorite), and claimed to be the spiritual mentor to everyone from Paul McCartney to Bob Dylan. He was also the self-proclaimed Father of Christian Rock, and for once he got it right.

Those who are familiar with the safe, sanitized world of Contemporary Christian Music might be startled if they listened to those thirty songs. There was nothing safe and sanitized about Larry Norman’s music. He sang about gonorrhea, drug addiction, NASA’s foibles, the death of Janis Joplin, and Jesus. Always about Jesus. Larry was wrong about some of those things. The devil never ever had all the good music. Larry Norman had some of it, too, and so did all the lost pagans Larry both excoriated and loved. But there was an emotional directness and honesty and prophetic tenacity about those songs that anyone – CCM musician or otherwise – would do well to recapture:

You kill a black man at midnight
Just for talking to your daughter
Then you make his wife your mistress
And you leave her without water
And the sheet you wear upon your face
Is the sheet your children sleep on
At every meal you say a prayer
You don't believe but still you keep on

That’s from a song on Only Visiting This Planet, and you can bet your glow-in-the-dark Bible verse keychain that the Blackburn Family wasn’t singing anything like that. So when I read about his death this morning I was more than a little surprised to find tears welling up. Larry Norman is dead. Damn. On that first album of Larry’s I ever bought he sang, “You think it’s such a sad thing when you see a fallen king/Then you find out they’re only princes to begin with.” He could have been describing his own life. For a while I viewed him as the great Christian musical hope. Eventually I figured out that he was a screwup, just like me. He was the imperfect brother I never knew. He was the king of Christian rock, and I will miss his imperfect, maddening greatness.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Taylor Made/Glaswegians

On Monday I ventured forth to Upland, Indiana to speak at Taylor University. “Upland” conjures images of mountain streams and coniferous firs in my mind, but reality was something different. Reality was a few cornfields that had been plowed under to make way for the university, and an ice cream shop called Ivanhoe’s, which appeared to be the only commercial establishment in “town.” Parents looking for an environment that provides few distractions from the academic life could hardly do better than Taylor University.

I enjoyed my time in the heartland. Aside from some initial confusion about where I was supposed to speak, the evening came off without a hitch. I didn’t stumble over my words too badly, the audience of 25 or so students and faculty members appeared to be awake throughout the proceedings, and we all got to listen to and talk about good music. I was asked some of my favorite questions (new finds: Son Lux and Jacob Golden; five desert island discs: take your pick from The Beatles, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, U2, Steve Earle, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Cockburn, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, John Coltrane, Al Green, Fountains of Wayne, Little Richard, Sandy Denny, Van Morrison, The Clash, Sarah Vaughan, Bill Evans, Marvin Gaye, Henryk Gorecki, Vigilantes of Love, Joe Henry, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Pogues, Graham Parker, Uncle Tupelo, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Mark Heard, Muddy Waters, Radiohead, Squeeze, Bill Monroe, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Steeleye Span, Ralph and Carter Stanley, Johnny Cash, The Jayhawks, Sufjan Stevens, Richard and Linda Thompson, Chuck Berry, Brad Mehldau, The Pixies, Aretha Franklin, The Beach Boys, Sigur Ros, Charlie Parker, Tom Waits, Arvo Part, Buddy and Julie Miller, Merle Haggard, Billie Holiday, T Bone Burnett, Whiskeytown, Buddy Holly, Tonio K., Howlin’ Wolf, The New Ponographers, The Hold Steady, Emmylou Harris,The Byrds – okay, that’s 97, but who’s counting? Oh yeah, The Old 97’s should probably be a part of that list, too.).

In any case, I’m glad I get to do these things periodically. And I’m always amazed and grateful that people show up to hear me. I also had a great roadtrip with my pastor Jeff, and a nice time with my BIL/SIL Bill and Jan, who put us up for the night in nearby Muncie. Many thanks.


People from New York are called New Yorkers. People from Glasgow, Scotland are called Glaswegians. I don’t why this is, but it’s one of those etymological truths that makes life so unpredictable and delightful.

The Glaswegian trio Frightened Rabbit have made my favorite new album for this week. It’s called Midnight Organ Fight (we won’t speculate too much on what that might mean) and it’s due out April 15th. In spite of the unfortunate band name, Frightened Rabbit do not sound like their trembling twee countrymen Belle and Sebastian. They sound like a poppier version of The Frames, or a more soulful version of another Glasgow band, The Twilight Sad. In any event, lead singer Scott Hutchinson has the soulful brogue going that Glen Hansard[1] employed so masterfully on the Once soundtrack, and he writes quirky and frequently violent songs that are belied by their sunny pop melodies. You cyberwegians should seek it out once it becomes available.

[1] Yes, Mr. Geography, I do realize that Ireland and Scotland are not the same country. But for the purposes of this discussion, their soulful brogues sound similar to one another.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Random Musical Notes

Whither (Wither) Columbus?

I keep reading breathless reviews about the new U2 concert film U23D. I admit that my previous experiences with wearing the funky glasses at 3D movies has left me less than optimistic. But everything I read tells me that this truly is something different -- U2 on a giant iMax screen, with eye-popping visual effects. One reviewer I respect, who is not typically given to hyperbole, stated that the experience was like being a fly on Bono's shades, and that the new technology employed in this film could very well revolutionize the film industry. He noted that this was less like viewing a concert film and more like being at the concert, on the stage.

Okay, so I was sold. The film opens today at numerous iMax theaters throughout the country. Columbus, Ohio? Nope. Even though there are a couple iMax theaters in town, there are no current plans to screen the film. Columbus really does have a lot going for it in the arts, but here was a fine opportunity that was left withering on the vine. The good news is that you can still go to those iMax theaters and watch helicopters swooping through the Grand Canyon.

A Less Than Thrilling Reissue

Michael Jackson's Thriller is 25 years old this week, and that means that it's time for the deluxe reissue treatment. When an album has shipped 100 million units, as this one has[1], it's hard to imagine who might be left out there to buy it. So to make this work you have to bring in the guest stars. The just-released reissue offers the original album, seven bonus tracks featuring the likes of, Kanye West, Fergie, and Akon, and an accompanying DVD that includes the three original MTV videos from the album and MJ's performance of "Billie Jean" from the Motown 25th anniversary TV special.

It's a mixed bag. Is the original album great? Of course. Any album that includes "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Thriller," "Beat It," "Billie Jean," and "Human Nature" deserves the highest accolades. Is the original album a stinking pile of manure? Yes. "The (Doggone) Girl is Mine" and "The Lady in My Life" represent the worst of saccharine, treacly excess, and the former permanently soured me on the ongoing musical capabilities of one Paul McCartney. On the new remixes, bravely steps into the McCartney breach, and does his best to whip the froth into something of substance. It doesn't work. The other remixes fare no better for me, but that's primarily because I have little or no interest in people named Kanye and Fergie. Fans of contemporary R&B might be more impressed. The videos? Are you kidding? The videos are fabulous, ridiculously fabulous. No wonder that newfangled MTV experiment took off after the release of this album.

Overall, though, it's not enough to make me want to fork over 30 bucks to hear music I already have. But the videos almost win me over. Here's a newsflash: dude could dance.

Thrilling Reissues

Rhino is re-issuing the first four Replacements albums (Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash, Stink, Hootenanny, and Let It Be) in late April, with the usual remastering, bonus tracks, etc. This is cause for great rejoicing, and a fine reason to discover the shambolic glory that was The 'Mats.

And the king of reissues, Elvis Costello, will see his second album This Year's Model, reissued for about the fourth time in early March. It's a 2-disc set featuring the original album, 11 B-sides and outtakes from the TYM era, and a 17-song concert from 1978,

If you don't have the original album, what are you waiting for? It's as great as rock 'n roll gets. Costello's first album, 1977's My Aim Is True, revealed a stunningly talented songwriter, but This Year's Model has it beat (it's the beat) in every way -- the songs, the production and, most importantly, the emergence of an amazing band in The Attractions. Steve Nieve's circus calliope paired with those pounding drums and Elvis's snarling vocals is one of the wonders of the modern world. The outtakes and B-sides have appeared in various configurations over the years (I have most of them on an old vinyl record called Taking Liberties). Still, Costello at this stage of his career was recording more great songs than could fit on his officially released albums, and almost all of these 11 "new" songs are quite wonderful. And the concert recording finds Elvis at the top of his game. Costello was hit-and-miss as a live performer, at least in 1978, and I saw him drunkenly stumble through a horrid forty-five minutes in Columbus (the same night he infamously insulted Ray Charles as "a blind, ignorant nigger"). He's much, much better here, and I'd say this live recording (from Washington D.C.'s Warner Theater) rivals the great live recording at the El Macombo Club from the same era.

I've just discovered this marvel of the modern world -- a website that offers a video archive of full concerts, and allows you to view them from the comfort and privacy of your 24-inch iMac monitor (eat your heart out, laptop users). I ventured over there to watch Joe Henry, who was and is great in concert, but I eventually got suckered in to watching most of the Flogging Molly concert as well. It's great fun to watch young people pummel one another as a band plays fiddles and accordions. Who woulda thunk it?

[1] Making it, by far, the best-selling album of all time. The nearest contenders -- The Eagles, Pink Floyd, and Celine Dion -- don't even reach Thriller's halfway point in terms of sales.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Model Life

My daughter Katryn, currently studying fashion merchandising in NYC, has an amazing internship with a woman named Nicole Miller, who is apparently a hotshot fashion designer. Nicole has her doing basic scutwork for no money, but that's okay because this is one of those rites of passage that people in her field have to go through before they can land a real job. But there's been fun, too. For the past two weekends Katryn has worked behind the scenes at a couple big fashion shows and trade shows. Part of her role has been to work with a team of Nicole Miller drones who undress/dress the models when they come off the runway. They usually have about thirty seconds to get it done. It's kind of like being on the pit crew at a Nascar race, except you're changing Joan-of-Arc-themed evening gowns instead of tires.

I've been reveling in Katryn's stories of the models, who are all about 6'3", weigh 107 pounds, and have single names like Moldavia and Mischa. The devil apparently wears both Prada and Nicole Miller. The upside is that unlike the normal scutwork, Katryn has been paid for working the fashion shows. In Nicole Miller dresses. If she could sell them, she'd be making more money than me. But, of course, being the fashionista that she is, she doesn't want to sell them. She wants to wear them. Me? I'm thrilled for her. I just wish she could wear the bills we're racking up as well.

Here she is with Alexandra. Or maybe it's Mischa.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Falling on the Sword

I don't normally get overtly political here, and I promise I won't do it again for a long time, but I have to say that the developments of the past month or so have left me cautiously optimistic. For the first time in 32 years there appears to be no presidential candidate (who has a chance of winning; sorry, Mike Huckabee) whose policies align closely with the religious right.

James Dobson, who focuses on a lot more than the family these days, has already stated that he cannot, in good conscience, vote for John McCain. That echoes views previously stated by Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. And that leaves, well, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as the choices, doesn't it? You think the good Dr. Dobson will be pulling the lever for Clinton or Obama? Me either. So what's an upstanding conservative to do? In ancient times, when faced with a similar predicament, vanquished leaders would fall on their own swords. I wonder what the modern-day equivalent might be?

It was a bad marriage all along, so I can't pretend that I'm disappointed. The unholy alliance between evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party caused massive damage to the reputation of the Christian Church. Nowadays when someone asks me, "Are you a Christian?" I am forced to equivocate. "Yes, I am," I tell them, "but not in the way the term is commonly understood in 21st century American culture. I don't care about the color of my state on an election-night map. I'm the kind of Christian who just wants to follow Jesus."

Make no mistake. I surely believe that following Jesus has social and political implications. But those implications cross party lines, and more frequently than not have absolutely nothing to do with party lines. It is the great religious tragedy of the last quarter century that those distinctions have been lost, and that evangelical Christianity has been equated in the public mind with a particular brand of political activism that is narrowly focused on issues such as abortion and gay rights. In contrast, I would like to think of myself as pro-life, even after kids are born.

And so in November I will vote for a candidate who will offer an imperfect solution to complex issues, and who will not be God's President. And I will rejoice because, for once, and perhaps for all time, the stranglehold has been broken. Maybe, just maybe, we Christians will figure out that looking to any political party to embody God's will is as much an idolotrous stance as worshipping a golden calf. And maybe, just maybe, we will be willing to serve in the prophetic role to which we have been called; standing apart from political systems, and working toward a social agenda that values loving and serving people -- individuals unborn and aged and everywhere in between -- as the means by which the Kingdom of God might be advanced.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Contemplative Cowboys

I like my cowboys with philosophy degrees. It’s okay if they wear the Stetson hats as long as they quote Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein. Or know how to spell their names. Or at least have more on their minds than longnecks and short skirts. These three cowboys more or less fit the pattern, although none of them wears a Stetson, and one of them is at least partial to longnecks and short skirts. But I’m giving him extra credit for the literary reference on “Faulkner Street.”

Kasey Anderson – The Reckoning

Portland, Oregon troubadour Kasey Anderson has some cojones. He starts off his third album with the atmospheric five-minute title track, an apocalyptic spoken-word piece that will be an immediate turn off for Bubba and Wanda, who are just looking for a good two-step dance tune. Then again, Bubba and Wanda probably won’t know what to do with the song about New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden either. But fear not. If the Woody Guthrie cap and the Steve Earle rasp won’t convince you, then honky tonk barroom brawlers like “Hometown Boys” and “Wake Up” will immediately certify Anderson’s working man’s poet credentials. He’s a literate working man’s poet at that, and songs like “Don’t Look Back” and “For St. Ann’s” are surrealistic, visionary ballads, the product of someone who’s paid a lot of attention to those mid-‘60s Dylan albums. It’s a strange mix of sounds and influences, and it doesn’t always work. But Anderson’s a fine narrative-driven songwriter and storyteller, and the meat-and-potatoes honky tonk and roots rock peeks through often enough to make The Reckoning not only a worthwhile listen, but an entertaining one as well.

Justin Townes Earle – The Good Life

When your last name is “Earle” and your middle name is “Townes” you have a lot to prove. So if the comparisons are inevitable, and they are, give Steve’s kid some credit. He’s his own man, and on his debut album he carves out a sonic niche that is more indebted to Hank Williams and truckstop jukebox anthems than either of his two famous namesakes. The title track and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” are straight out of the Merle Haggard and Buck Owens school of Bakersfield honky tonk, which is a very, very fine thing indeed. Unlike dad, Justin’s voice has the twang but not the rasp, and there are times when he’s a dead ringer for the young Hank Williams. But like dad, Justin has a penchant for writing songs set during the American Civil War, and his “Lone Pine Hill” is a good one that can hold its own with Steve’s “Taneytown” or “Ben McCulloch.” The album bogs down a bit toward the end, but the first eight songs are all memorable, and this is an impressive debut.

Hayes Carll – Trouble in Mind

Hayes Carll released the best Americana album of 2005 in Little Rock. Carll claimed at the time that all the good songs about Texas were already written, but that Arkansas was fertile new territory. And he was right. Trouble in Mind, the followup that arrives on Lost Highway Records April 8th, is worth the three-year wait. There’s the usual colorful cast of characters – drunkards, roustabouts, country singers – some of them all rolled into one autobiographical sonic package. There’s a great cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” There are gut-wrenching ballads like “Faulkner Street” and some great southern fried boogie, courtesy of guitar duelists Will Kimbrough and Georgia Satellites alum Dan Baird. Best of all there’s the hilariously vengeful “She Left Me For Jesus,” a good ol’ boy’s plot to get back at the man who stole his formerly fun-loving woman. “If I ever find Jesus,” Carll avows, “I’m gonna kick his ass.” There’s about forty-five minutes of asskicking here, all of it of the good, stomping musical variety.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Aradhna -- Amrit Vani

There’s no great secret here, but I’ll spell it out. I’m a Christian who has very little use for Christian music. Although some of my favorite music has been made by Christians (U2, Bruce Cockburn, Vigilantes of Love, Tonio K., Innocence Mission, Mark Heard, Peter Case, T-Bone Burnett, Sam Phillips, Buddy and Julie Miller, Over the Rhine, not to mention Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blind Willie Johnson and Ralph and Carter Stanley), the Contemporary Christian Music genre in general, and the Worship Music wing of that genre in particular, holds little appeal. There’s too much imitation of Fleetwood Mac circa 1975, and too much wince-inducing, sub-Hallmark “apple of my eye/wind beneath my wings” shite. When it comes to music that actually connects in spiritual ways for me, and that I actually want to listen to in the car outside of Sunday mornings, give me Sigur Ros or Miles Davis. They probably didn’t know they were creating worship music. It just worked out that way for me.

So when an album comes along that fits squarely within the Worship Music tradition, and I actually like it, then there may be some evidence that hell has begun to freeze over. But it’s happened with Aradhna. The four core members of the band – Chris Hale, Peter and Fiona Hicks, and Travis McAfee – are as American as their names would indicate. But they’ve all spent significant portions of their lives in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. And therein lies the strange and wondrous merger of two worlds that contributes to the uniqueness of the band’s music, and to the surprising vigor of Amrit Vani. There are sitars here. And tablas. They sound as exotic as you would expect. And there are acoustic guitar arpeggios and gently lilting violin solos that wouldn’t sound out of place on a very western Windham Hill album. It works beautifully. The lyrics are sung in Hindi, and far from being an impediment, the language barrier is actually a great help (see “apple of my eye” and “wind beneath my wings” above). Like Sigur Ros, sometimes the indecipherable is greatly preferable to the old, tired formulas. And by the time we reach the final song, “Narahari,” the music swells and soars, the ramshackle choir enters sounding like the Hindustani angelic host, and something remarkable happens. I find myself worshipping God.

Amrit Vani digs deep in a contemplative, meditative way that few worship albums even begin to approach. And it’s quite lovely. Even in the car.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Generic Hipper-Than-Thou Album Review

Disclaimer: There are a couple of cusswords ahead. One of them is part of a band name. If the prospect offends you, don't read on. But this is what hipper-than-thou people do.

This is from a review that appears today on a well-known music website that shall remain nameless:

Under the up-with-people-and-feelings sermon Tom Greenwood and whoever comprised Jackie-O Motherfucker that week gnash on electric guitars and set Slinkys down staircases. The whole thing feels like that episode from "Funkadelic: The Sitcom" where Eddie Hazel hung out with Swamp Thing against his parents' wishes.

This is an album review. Anybody know what the album sounds like? I surely don't. If I found that in a book, I'd throw it across a room. But it's on my laptop, and laptops cost a lot of money, so I'm not going to throw it.

Today's koan: what is the sound of one Slinky on the stairs? I am also apparently of the generation who missed Eddie Hazel, whoever he or she might be, and it's unclear whether Eddie was part of Funkadelic (a band I do remember) or a television sitcom star. And I definitely missed out on Swamp Thing, who would probably be against my wishes as well.

I get so tired of reading reviews like this, and the whole hipper-than-thou smugness and winking cultural references that nobody understands except the reviewer. And so, in the interest of saving everybody time, I've tried to put together an all-purpose hipper-than-thou album review. The fact that it never gets around to discussing the music is irrelevant. In fact, that's the point. But I've tried this out on several musical genres ranging from techno to bluegrass, and it works. Feel free to fill in the blanks and submit it to your favorite musical website. You too can be part of a fun and profitable home business, and receive free CDs in the mail.



[ArtistName], like the towering Romanian Dadaists Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco, [has/have] always created works that are both invitingly open and shrounded in mystery. [AlbumName] is no exception.

[AlbumName], in fact, reminds me of the time – let’s call it The Post-College But Pre-Grad School Years – when I fell in love with M. Of course it didn’t – it couldn’t – last. You can blame it on our socioeconomic differences, our parents’ absolutely rigid and totally indefensible insistence that at least one of us had to earn an income, the silly squabbles over where we would live (New York for me and Papua New Guinea for her; but look, one can study seashell currency just about anywhere). God knows I’ve blamed it on all those things. In any event, it was too much to overcome. But, of course, Tzara had his own woes with Greta Knutson. I’m sure he would understand. And [ArtistName] does as well.

You can tell because [he/she/they] convey an almost telepathic empathy in these songs. I listen to them and think, “You know, [ArtistName] really [get/gets] it. It’s like [he/she/they] have walked a mile in my Kurt Geiger Solea Storm pumps with the stacked conical heels, the ones I just bought two weeks ago, and which are already scuffed.” Nothing lasts. You can’t depend on anything or anyone.

[AlbumName] is the kind of album that reminds me of the smell of freshly mown grass on a motherfuckingly bright late spring morning, the kind of day when you’re 12 years old, and the school year is almost over, and you’ve just beaten the shit out of Bobby Morrison because he kept calling your sister a ho, and life is just about perfect except for the blood on your shirt. It’s that good, and that bad. It is beautiful and wondrous, tawdry and tragic, much like my life. I both love and hate my life, and I love and hate [AlbumName] as well. It’s all in the ambiguity.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Fleshtones - Take a Good Look

I love garage rock. But I hate garage rock revivals, even though I firmly believe that the genre is vibrant enough to be revived every five years or so. With the exception of The White Stripes, every one of the latest crop of revivalists -- The Vines, The Strokes, The Hives -- has let me down. After impressive starts, they flame out into limpid sophomore albums. And they never find their way back.

So thank God for The Fleshtones. They started making garage rock twenty-five years ago, they've never stopped, and they've never, ever sucked. Their latest album, Take a Good Look, is twelve songs long, half an hour short, and chock full of snarling vocals, cheesy Farfisa organ, amateurish guitar work, and perfectly realized little pop moments. The Animals and The Dave Clark Five and The Yardbirds and ? and the Mysterians used to blast this blues-based stuff out in the mid-sixties. There isn't a wasted note. I love it. "Look out for the jet set Fleshtones," they sing. You should.

Upcoming Speaking and Writing Engagements

For those of you in my vast readership who want to know about such things, here you go:


Monday, Feb. 18th -- Taylor University, Upland, Indiana (8:00 in the Student Union)

Thursday, June 12th - Sunday, June 15th -- Trinity Arts Conference, Dallas, Texas

Monday, June 30th - Sunday, July 5th -- Cornerstone Music and Arts Festival, Bushnell, Illinois

Let me know if you'll be there; I'd love to meet you.


Paste Magazine -- Upcoming articles and reviews on R.E.M., Matthew Ryan, Son Lux, Joe Grushecky and the Iron City Houserockers, South, and Griffin House

Christianity Today Magazine -- Upcoming article on Son Lux

All Music Guide -- Currently no time, but I'm hoping to find the time.

Superbowl Commercials

Every year I am mystified by the marketing genius of Madison Avenue. Yesterday was no exception. We saw a girl sitting on a mountaintop strumming an acoustic guitar and singing a nondescript tune about something or other. What any of it had to do with Doritos is beyond me. We saw the most vicious racial stereotyping ever. God help you if you’re Indian, Chinese, or Mexican. They are coming to steal our women. Apparently Hyundai is now selling a luxury vehicle, which is a fairly comic concept in itself, but which was presented in deadly earnestness in the commercial.

Guys clamped battery cables to their nipples. Young kids picked their noses. A talking baby bought stocks online, and then spit up. Given that, you would have thought that the major problem with the giant carrier pigeons would have been obvious. Inexplicably, it was never mentioned.

On the plus side, the sight of the guy in the giant mouse costume beating the crap out of the guy with the bag of Doritos almost made up for the whole tepid and/or offensive batch of losers. And the sight of Justin Timberlake slamming his crotch into the mailbox was great, and a nice self-deprecating touch on his part. Apparently I am drawn to, ah, physical comedy. On the downside, it was sad that Richard Simmons wasn't actually run over.

The game? Oh yeah, there was a game, although you’d hardly know it by the first three quarters. Until the fourth quarter I would have said that this was the most snoozeworthy Super Bowl ever. But it sure picked up toward the end, didn’t it? Congratulations to the New York Giants and MVP quarterback Eli Manning, who in the last five minutes was even more entertaining than the guy in the giant mouse costume.